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What’s the harm? Stem cell tourism edition

What's the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There's the harm.

What’s the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There’s the harm.

It’s been over two weeks now since hockey legend Gordie Howe died at the age of 88. Detroit, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is a serious hockey town, as hockey-crazy as any town in Canada (just look at the fancy new hockey arena named after crappy pizza being built downtown only a mile from where I work), and it worshiped Gordie Howe for as long as I can remember growing up here.

The reason I mentioned this is because in late 2014, Howe suffered a series of debilitating strokes that brought him close to death. He survived, but with major neurologic deficits. As a result of Gordie Howe’s fame, representatives of a company known as Stemedica who were also fans of Gordie Howe and whose company is developing stem cell treatments for a variety of illnesses, approached the family and persuaded them to take Gordie Howe to the Novastem Clinic in Tijuana, a clinic that to me appeared to exist mainly as a means for patients not eligible for Stemedica’s clinical trials in the US to receive Stemedica’s stem cells outside of a clinical trial, cash on the barrelhead, no questions asked. In a rather ethically dubious move that could only be viewed as paying for publicity (which it got in abundance), Stemedica administered its stem cells to Gordie Howe for free. If you’re not Gordie Howe, however, it’ll cost you about $32,000.

As is the case for most anecdotes like this, Gordie Howe did improve. That is not surprising, because, as Steve Novella, who is a neurologist and thus takes care of stroke patients as part of his practice, told me at the time, the natural history of stroke is neurologic recovery that eventually plateaus several months after the stroke. This occurs as the inflammation from the initial stroke abates and as much regeneration as the body can muster occurs. Also, as I noted before, Howe had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is more dangerous and likely to kill early but, if the victim survives, he is more likely to experience better functional recovery than in the case of the much more common ischemic stroke, in which a blood clot clogs a blood vessel, resulting in the death of brain tissue supplied by that vessel. In any case, as I described in a three part series of posts (part one, part two, part three), it’s impossible to know whether the stem cell infusion that Howe underwent had anything whatsoever with his partial recovery that allowed him to make a few public appearances in 2015 and 2016.

Unfortunately, the offer by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies to treat Gordie Howe at Novastem worked brilliantly. Gordie Howe quickly became the poster child for dubious stem cell therapies. Local and national news aired credulous, feel-good human interest stories about his seemingly miraculous recovery, while Keith Olbermann practically served as a pitch man for Stemedica and didn’t take kindly at all to any criticism of his—shall we say?—enthusiastic coverage. The predominant angle taken in stories about Gordie Howe was he had undergone Stemedica’s stem cell therapy and, as result, enjoyed a “miraculous recovery” from his stroke. The vast majority of news coverage also tended to present the magic of stem cell therapies credulously, as all benefit and no risk, as a qualitative analysis published last year clearly showed, finding that the “efficacy of stem cell treatments is often assumed in news coverage and readers’ comments” and that media coverage “that presents uncritical perspectives on unproven stem cell therapies may create patient expectations, may have an affect [sic] on policy discussions, and help to feed the marketing of unproven therapies.”

No kidding.

Why, you might ask, am I reminding you of Gordie Howe’s use of stem cells to treat his strokes? Simple, it became part of a marketing blitz, credulously swallowed whole by Keith Olbermann and many reporters, for unproven stem cell therapies, which have been portrayed as very promising (which is likely true, although that promise hasn’t yet been proven or realized) and harmless, which is definitely not true, as evidenced by the story of Jim Gass, as published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and a variety of other media. Before I discuss Mr. Gass in more detail, however, let’s recap a bit about stem cells. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Ethics, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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How low antivaccine “warriors” will go: Of Facebook harassment reporting algorithm abuse and publicly attacking a 12 year old boy

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.
Marco Arturo

I was going to write about something else this week, but events over the last several days led me to change my mind. The first was the reaction of a pseudonymous antivaccine “warrior” going by the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss to a viral video posted by a 12-year-old boy named Marco Arturo. The second was my learning that other antivaccine “warriors” had resumed abusing the Facebook reporting algorithm to get pro-science advocates supporting vaccines banned from Facebook for periods up to 30 days and thereby silence them. I wrote about this latter tactic a couple of years ago, when the Australian antivaccine group the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), or AVN (which was forced to rename itself the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network in 2014), started abusing Facebook’s algorithm for reporting harassment and abuse in order to get members of the skeptic group Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) temporary Facebook bans. It’s a tactic that has continued, with a fresh batch of temporary bans issued by Facebook in response to bogus complaints over the last few days.

I’ve frequently written about how often the preferred tactic of antivaccinationists and others pushing medical pseudoscience is not to answer criticism with evidence, science, and rational argument, but rather to respond with attacks and attempts to intimidate and silence. The reason, of course, is that they do not have any of that to support their beliefs. At some level, I suspect that many of them know it. Be that as it may, those of us who lament how few physicians and scientists, even those sympathetic to scientific skepticism, are willing to publicly speak out and call the quacks to task know that the consequences of doing so are often quite unpleasant: Online attacks, poisoning of one’s Google reputation, attempts to get one banned from Facebook, and, of course, the antivaccinationists’ favorite: Harassment through one’s job by complaining to one’s bosses. To illustrate these hazards, I’ll start with the story of Marco Arturo, before moving on to a more organized effort. (If you read my not-so-super-secret other blog, you’ll have heard of Marco’s story before, but I’ll summarize here as well.) Then I’ll update you on how Facebook continues to allow its reporting algorithms to be abused to silence pro-vaccine voices there. I’ll finish up with examples of what we at SBM have experienced and some thoughts on what can be done. (more…)

Posted in: Computers & Internet, Health Fraud, Vaccines

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Behold my power, quacks, and despair! Mike Adams publishes several defamatory articles about yours truly…

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. It started out funny, but isn't so funny any more.

Mike Adams seems to view me this way. It started out funny, but isn’t so funny any more. Of course, Galadriel was offered The One Ring and its great power, but declined it because she was afraid of what she would become. Maybe I am like Galadriel after all.

I decided to write this post for Science-Based Medicine because I’ve taken notice of recent posts Mike Adams has written about me, mainly because they are riddled with misinformation, fabrications, and lies. Even though at least two of his claims about me made me laugh out loud because of their utter ridiculousness, much of the rest of his recent writing about me has been downright defamatory, libelous even.

The stupid stuff

Before I get into the really nasty stuff, let’s look at the stupid stuff. It’s not that the nasty stuff isn’t also stupid, but here I arbitrarily decide to divide the discussion into parts about when Adams amuses me and when he disgusts me. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from Adams’ attacks on me, it’s that, apparently, I have incredible power—possibly even superhuman! I mean, seriously. Adams really does seem to think that I have massive power over what Wikipedia does and does not publish about vaccines and medicine! Indeed, as I thought last night about what to write and even ended up staying up until 2 AM to do so (mainly because I was so exhausted after a day in the operating room that I crashed on the couch between 8 and 11 PM), I was half-tempted not to disabuse him of his apparent delusions about my overwhelming power. After all, if Adams really does think that I have so much power, why would I want to reveal to him the truth that I do not? On the other hand, far less amusing are Adams’ attempts to link Karmanos Cancer Center and me to the criminal Dr. Farid Fata, a lie by insinuation that is despicable even by his low standards. What should I expect, though, from someone who’s been running scams since Y2K and posting threats against GMO scientists?

Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that Adams doesn’t actually know damned well that I don’t have that level of influence on Wikipedia. Rather, it’s all a sham, a con man’s patter, to convince his readers that I’m a major player in a conspiracy to manipulate health articles on Wikipedia from behind the scenes. He uses such fabricated stories as tools to fire up his gullible and stupid followers. Does Adams even realize how ridiculous his articles come across with their overwrought language? In fact, I laughed out loud when I read that Arianna Huffington and I “are not directly murdering children, but they are doing everything in their power to kill any truthful discussion about vaccine damage (that might save children)” and then this:
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Posted in: Announcements, Health Fraud

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When antivaccine pseudoscience isn’t enough, Bill Maher fawns over Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (right), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

Bill Maher (right) expresses admiration for HIV quack Samir Chachoua (left), who claims to be able to cure people of HIV and cancer using milk from arthritic goats.

I know I must be getting older because of Friday nights. After a long, hard week (and, during grant season, in anticipation of a long, hard weekend of grant writing), it’s not infrequent that my wife and I order pizza, plant ourselves in front of the TV, and end up asleep before 10 or 11 PM. Usually, a few hours later, between midnight and 3 AM one or both of us will wake up and head upstairs to bed, but not always. Sometimes it’s all Friday night on the couch.

Last Friday was a bit different. It wasn’t different in that I did fall asleep on the couch sometime around 10 PM. However, unlike the usual case, when I woke up around 1:30 or 2 AM to head upstairs I was stone cold wide awake, feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, eyes held wide open. So I did what I do when insomnia strikes. I popped up the computer and checked my e-mail and Facebook. Immediately, I saw messages asking me if I had seen Real Time With Bill Maher that night and, oh boy, I really should watch Maher. Apprehensive but curious, I fired up the DVR and watched.

And, shortly after the monologue, was totally appalled by this;

Funny, how the segment hasn’t yet been posted to Bill Maher’s YouTube page, as many of his interviews are. If he ever does post it, I’ll switch out the video above for the “official” source. Somehow, though, I doubt that the video will ever be posted, the reason being that it contains an embarrassingly fawning 10 minute interview with “Dr.” Samir Chachoua, better known (at least to skeptics) as Charlie Sheen’s HIV quack. Somehow, when Charlie Sheen was on The Dr. Oz Show a couple of weeks ago, other things were going on and I didn’t blog about it. Fortunately, Steve Novella did. Now, with Sheen’s very own quack who failed him being fawned over by Bill Maher, it gives me a chance to take down three birds with one stone: Bill Maher, Dr. Oz, and, of course, Sam Chachoua. Sadly for Bill Maher, America’s Quack Dr. Mehmet Oz comes off looking a lot better than he does, and that’s saying something.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Health Fraud, Vaccines

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The one thing you need to know before you detox

detox will to live small

New Year, New You, right? Here’s a perennially popular post, revised for 2016.

With 2016 upon us, it’s finally time get serious about your health. You’re resolving to eat better and exercise more. But first, you need to reset your body – and purge yourself of all of your lifestyle and dietary overindulgences. But how? The options seem limitless, and everyone has advice: There’s Dr. Oz, Gwyneth, and even your favourite Kardashian has advice: They’re all telling you how it’s essential to “detox”, “cleanse” and “flush” away all of your toxins. Your local pharmacy has an ever-growing section of products promising a newer, more pure you: supplements, homeopathy, ear candles, and an entire aisle of “detox kits” all promise to suck toxins out of your body. Don’t forget your local naturopath who sells IV vitamin drips as the detoxification solution to your problems. The approaches may differ but all the advocates are completely convinced of one fact: Detoxing will deliver a renewed body and better health. Not only will you look better, you’ll feel better. It is a new year. Wouldn’t a purification from last year’s habits (dietary and otherwise) of last year be the best way to start? Well before you pull out your credit card, there is one fact that “detox” advocates are reluctant to tell you. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Nutrition

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What’s in your Traditional Chinese Medicine?

A study found 92% of Traditional Chinese Medicine was contaminated with drugs, heavy metals, or animals including cat, dog, rat and pit viper.

An analysis of 26 Traditional Chinese Medicine products found 92% were contaminated with pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, or the DNA of animals, including traces of cat, dog, rat, or pit viper.

Two weeks ago I detailed the pervasive problem of poor quality supplements. The main reason for this seems to be weak regulatory standards that prioritize the rights of manufacturers to sell supplements over the rights of consumers to buy safe, high quality, properly-labelled products. Call it “health freedom“, where the freedom belongs to producers, who in many countries are largely freed from most of the quality and safety regulations that are in place for licensed prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals. The result of weak regulation is that few supplements sold on the market today have been properly tested for safety or effectiveness, and there are few quality standards for the production of these products.

Not surprisingly, there are persistent signs that consumers may face real risks to their health from using these products. Now a new study from Australia confirms what past studies have already shown: adulterated and contaminated herbal remedies are the rule, rather than the exception. They often contain undeclared ingredients ranging from potential allergens to heavy metals to endangered species. (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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The Ethics of Prescribing Worthless Treatments

ethics smallIs it ever ethical for a physician to prescribe a treatment to a patient that they know to be entirely without efficacy? Is it ever possible to do this without deceiving the patient to some degree? I think the answer to both questions is a clear “no.”

Within the flipped reality of “alternative medicine,” however, it suddenly becomes acceptable to deceive patients and sell them worthless treatments, as long as the deception was minimally successful.

A recent editorial in Scientific American by Allison Bond addresses this question. She manages to hit upon many of the reasons placebo medicine is inappropriate, but her reasoning is a bit muddled and she comes, in my opinion, to the wrong conclusion. She wraps her commentary in an anecdote of a terminal patient for whom she cared who found relief from reiki. She concludes:

Of course, when it comes to treating patients with painful, life-threatening diseases, the goal of our care should be to lessen suffering, regardless of where such relief originates. A few months after Ms. W left the hospital, I learned that she had died, and the news hit me hard. I thought back to her treatment under our care and hoped that even among the misery, we had eased her suffering through our therapies—“alternative” or not.

(more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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Holding the supplement industry to account: Can we learn from tobacco regulation?

When it comes to supplements, you can't trust what's on the label

When it comes to supplements, you can’t trust what’s on the label

The idea that “natural” products are safe and effective has been so effectively marketed to us that many don’t recognize it as a fallacy. Much of the supplement industry is built around an appeal to nature. Supplements are described as natural, gentle, and “holistic”. Medicine, especially prescription drugs, is the opposite. They’re “chemicals”. They’re risky and dangerous – just look at that list of side effects! Supplements are packaged beautifully, have impressive claims, and are for sale at Whole Foods. Drugs are hazardous: They may come in a plain vial, with warning labels, detailed information sheets, and cautious statements about their effectiveness. Is it any wonder that many consumers, when faced with health concerns or medical issues, instinctively think of supplements as a safer alternative? Purveyors of supplements and alternative medicine have leveraged this fallacy so effectively that it’s even guided the regulations that allow their sale. Regrettably, the result is a marketplace that puts consumers’ interests last. The supplement industry has completely stacked the odds against the consumer, challenging their ability to make informed decisions about their health. Most supplements on the market have never been properly tested for safety or effectiveness. And those that have been tested have largely been shown to be ineffective – or in the case of products like vitamins, often unnecessary. And while there are undoubtedly some ethical companies out there, the industry is regularly revealed to resemble a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Despite this, the industry has gone from success to success – in terms of sales, at least. In 1994 supplement sales were about $4 billion in the US. It’s now a $37 billion industry that is remains only lightly regulated – or largely unregulated. With recent action taken against fraudulent products, there are more questions than ever about how to force the supplement industry to make consumer protection a priority. A new paper in Drug Testing and Analysis makes a provocative suggestion: Local and state governments already regulate another hazardous product: tobacco. Can lessons learned from the tobacco wars improve the safety of supplements? (more…)

Posted in: Epidemiology, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Brian Clement claims Hippocrates treatments “reverse” multiple sclerosis

Brian Clement

Brian Clement

American charlatan Brian Clement made another trip to Canada recently and was caught on audiotape claiming multiple sclerosis could be “reversed” at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), where he serves as Director. This is yet another in a series of his misrepresentations about the effectiveness of the quack treatments offered at HHI. Indeed, Clement calls to mind the old joke about inveterate liars:

Q: Know how can you tell this guy is lying?

A: His lips are moving.

Once again, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which has done an outstanding job exposing Clement and his mendacity, caught him in this particular fabrication. (The American media, by contrast, has largely ignored the story, even to the point of printing credulous puff pieces about Clement.) According to the CBC, it:

obtained a recording of a lecture Clement gave in September in Montreal where he said, “Last week, we had somebody at the institute that reversed multiple sclerosis.”

He went on to claim that many other people who visited his Florida spa, the Hippocrates Health Institute, saw similar results.

“A nurse that came to us two years ago was crippled, had braces on. By the time she left Hippocrates, she reversed the multiple sclerosis.

“And mainstream medicine, they think it’s remarkable. I’ve seen lots and lots of people over the years did that.”

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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Legal, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young: How two quacks of a feather illustrate how poorly states regulate medical practice

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

Stanislaw Burzynski (upper panel) and Robert O. Young (lower panel), two quacks whose activities reveal the weaknesses in how the practice of medicine is regulated.

One of the weaknesses in our system of regulating the practice of medicine in the United States is that, unlike most countries, we don’t have one system. We have 50 systems. That’s because the functions of licensing physicians and regulating the practice of medicine are not federal functions, but state functions. Each state sets its own laws and regulations governing the practice of medicine, making for wide variability from state to state. Some states are lax in their regulation (cough, cough, I’m talking to you, Texas), others are not so lax.

Given how often state medical boards and the other enforcement bodies states use to protect the public from professional misconduct and quackery, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update our readers on two men who have been frequent topics of discussion on this blog, Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young. The reason is that, through some bizarre confluence of events, both of them faced justice last week, in the form of a hearing due to action against Burzynski by the Texas Medical Board, and in the form of the trial of Robert O. Young in southern California.

What these two quacks share in common is that they’ve gotten away with their cancer quackery for a very long time, two decades in the case of Robert O. Young and nearly four decades in the case of Stanislaw Burzynski, with attempts by the law to bring them to heel having been largely ineffective. They are different in that one is a physician (Dr. Burzynski) and one is not (Young) and therefore different legal considerations come into play. Young, for instance, is a self-proclaimed naturopath known for his “pH Miracle Living” cure, which, he claims, can be used to cure basically any disease by “alkalinizing” the body. After two decades of running, he is being tried for practicing medicine without a license, and, of course, fraud. Burzynski, although not an oncologist, is a licensed physician in Texas and has been administering an unproven and almost certainly ineffective “natural” treatment consisting of substances derived from blood and urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons” (ANPs) back in the 1970s. He is also different in that he’s gotten away with this largely through abuse of the clinical trial process, which is regulated at the federal level through the FDA and the HHS. It is not, however, the federal government that is pursuing action against Burzynski, but rather the Texas Medical Board (TMB). Thus, while Young is on trial and could go to jail if he loses, if Burzynski loses he will only lose his license to practice medicine in the state of Texas.

Despite their differences, both Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young illuminate major shortcomings in how the legal system deals with quacks.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation

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